The Baggage Screening Act, introduced by Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and co-sponsored by 18 other lawmakers, highlights what sponsors said is an abysmal failure by airlines to screen all packages for explosives.
"Americans would be shocked to learn that 90 to 95 percent of luggage in the belly of an aircraft is unscreened for explosives," Inslee said Tuesday at a Capitol Hill new conference.
Inslee, Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, appeared alongside two fathers whose sons were killed in 1988 after an explosive-laden bag in the cargo hold of Pam Am flight 103 detonated over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all passengers on board.
Sponsors of the bill hope to pressure House leaders to include mandatory checked baggage screening in any airport security legislation.
Lawmakers are scrabbling to adopt new airport security measures but efforts have been bogged down, in particular over the issue of whether baggage screeners should be government workers.
Inslee said in the years since the Lockerbie tragedy the federal government has failed to take appropriate measures to avoid a similar scenario.
Both Inslee and Shays stressed the old rationale for not scanning checked baggage -- that passengers would not plant explosives on the same planes they travel on -- has been proven false.
"That was disproved 19 times," said Inslee, refereeing to the 19 suicide hijackers who perished in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Shays said it was not until he was contacted by Inslee about the bill that was he aware airports did not scan checked bags.
"One of the problems is that we try to legislate a system of security and that approach is inflexible," said Robert Monetti of Cherry Hill, N.J., one of the Lockerbie parents. "We need to instill the need, the agency and the funding source."
Inslee said two companies, InVision Technologies in Newark, Calif. and L3 Communications in New York, are the principle manufacturers of explosive detection systems. Each unit costs less than $1 million and models that cost about $400,000 could be acquired for smaller airports. Inslee said one of the manufacturers is able to produce four units per month but could boost that number to 20 in "a few months."
George Williams, the other Lockerbie parent, said costs of acquiring additional scanners easily could be supported by slight increases in ticket prices, a position reiterated by Monetti.
"This initiative will have to be government funded, either through direct government subsidy or an airline tax," Monetti told UPI.
When asked if the bill likely would be approved by House leadership and included into a comprehensive airline package, Shays said, "only time will tell."
Strickland blasted practices at some airports that allow passengers randomly chosen for a baggage inspection to walk unsupervised to another scanning facility with their bag. "It borders on the insanity," he said. "If we pass this legislation lives will be saved. If we don't pass it, lives will be lost."